The deadline for sequestration—the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that were triggered last fall when the “supercommittee” failed to reach a deficit reduction agreement—is drawing near. It takes effect January 2013, part-way through fiscal year 2013. Experts and onlookers have been trying to figure out if and how lawmakers will cancel sequestration before that deadline. The Republican-led House of Representatives now has its answer.
First, a refresher on how Congress got here: As part of an agreement to increase the limit on the national debt last summer, legislators passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which sets up a framework by which lawmakers are to enact policies to reduce future budget deficits. If they don’t, the law automatically cuts spending through sequestration and sets limits on future appropriations.
Much of the deficit reduction outlined in the law was supposed to come from a bipartisan bill drafted by a joint House-Senate committee, known as the “supercommittee.” Supercommittee members were never able to agree on a bill, triggering the sequestration and spending caps. Unless Congress and the president now agree to override them, the cuts and caps will proceed as outlined in the law. The sequester will automatically cut fiscal year 2013 appropriations by about $93 billion, of which $55 billion comes out of defense programs and $39 billion comes out of non-defense programs. Within those amounts, the cuts will be distributed evenly across all non-exempt programs. (Pell Grants are the only exempt education program.)
Last week, the House passed a bill that, if signed into law, would cancel the sequester that applies to fiscal year 2013 appropriations. The bill includes policies that would reduce spending across a range of non-education programs funded outside the appropriations process. House lawmakers say those cuts would take the place of the automatic spending cuts that would have come through sequestration.
Nevertheless, education programs—nearly all of which are funded through the annual appropriations process—have not yet escaped unscathed in the House-passed bill. The bill leaves in place a cap on total appropriations funding for fiscal year 2013 that the House adopted earlier this year. That cap is $1.028 trillion, $15 billion below the total appropriations level enacted for fiscal year 2012.
The lower spending cap does not guarantee that lawmakers will cut funding for any or all education programs when they finalize fiscal year 2013 appropriations funding (fiscal year 2013 starts October 1, 2012), but education programs will compete with other programs for funding within a smaller pie. Even if the House bill becomes law, Congress must still determine funding levels for education programs during the appropriations process. Thus there is no meaningful way to predict how the House appropriations limit would affect education programs. Moreover, Congress has actually increased total appropriations for Department of Education programs in recent years even when it has cut appropriation funding across all agencies in aggregate.
It should also be noted that the House-passed bill leaves sequestration in place for programs funded outside of the appropriations process, so-called mandatory programs. This won’t mean much for education programs, since almost all are funded through the appropriations process. Some funding for Pell Grants is mandatory, but it is exempt from sequestration by law. That leaves student loans. The sequester would cut funding for student loans by increasing the origination fee borrowers pay when they take out new loans. That increase is likely to be about a half a percentage point, meaning the fee on a $5,000 loan will cost an additional $25.
To be clear, the Senate isn’t likely to take up the House bill. And the Senate shows no signs of adopting an alternative to cancelling the pending sequester.
In other words, if and how Congress will cancel the sequester is still anyone’s guess. Despite the action in the House, a definitive answer isn’t likely until after November elections.